The musical biopic is a complicated genre: oftentimes, these kinds of films put so much faith in the audience’s lazy expectations, they just throw the same clichés into the script over and over: kid’s a natural prodigy, parents don’t approve/don’t have faith, daddy issues force the kid to leave home, the kid gets discovered and turns into Big Celebrity, Big Celebrity falls in love, drugs threaten to destroy it all, and eventually they overcome through the power of love and song. And sure, this formula worked on Bird and Coal Miner’s Daughter and Walk The Line, but ever since the 2007 classic Walk Hard totally massacred the genre tropes, it’s been hard for any film to escape the scathing lens of satire – last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody was lambasted for its adherence to these tropes (note: unfortunately due to the shared producers and crews, I will have to talk about this film a lot in this review. Sorry). Rocketman, the newest film in the genre, this time following the life of legendary pianist Elton John, is interesting in the way it tries to be something more: while the clichés are still there dragging this film down, director Dexter Fletcher and star Taron Egerton take enough creative risks to elevate the film beyond its contemporaries to find a unique, creative voice that may actually be worth seeing.
In 1990, Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton) was at the end of his rope. While the rest of the world knew him as the celebrity Elton John, the creator of fifty Top 40 hits and seven consecutive #1 albums, he was personally suffering from depression, suicidal tendencies, and addictions to sex, cocaine, alcohol, and a whole slew of drugs that constantly put his life in peril. Now, checked into rehab to work on these afflictions, the man we know as Elton John looks back on his life as a fantastical, drug-fueled musicale, reflecting on his early childhood with his selfish, unfeeling parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), his partnership with best friend and co-writer Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his first toxic relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and the eventual price of his fame – his own personal well-being and happiness.
The first thing you have to realize about Rocketman, even before walking in the door, is that, “Oh, this is a musical musical.” I’m not talking concert sequences or musical practices – I mean they openly break the wall of reality so Elton John can perform full on song-and-dance numbers with scores of attractive background dancers, Grease-and-Fosse style. Now, it’s important to note that this sort of jukebox musical-biopic subgenre is not a new concept – Broadway has been obsessed with it for a decade now, with Jersey Boys, Beautiful, and this year’s Ain’t Too Proud and The Cher Show standing out as the most obvious examples. But the genre has yet to broach the silver screen – the closest we’ve come is the mediocre Jersey Boys movie and Mamma Mia. While this is a choice that may confuse and turn off some audience members, it actually turns out to be the film’s saving grace, in several regards. You see, the decision to make Elton John’s story a musical is, in many ways, a diegetic one. The film’s analysis of John during this time comes to two major conclusions: that the one thing he has going for him in his life is his love of the extravagant, and that he is deeply sunken into a world of cocaine and ecstasy. By establishing these facts, and then framing the film as John looking back on his life while in rehab, it makes sense that this character would imagine his life as a musical. It makes sense when an older Elton walks through a muted-color past in a big flamboyant peacock outfit, or when he imagines everyone flying when he first performs “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour, because that’s how the real Elton would remember it while high – as flamboyant and dazzling. It also helps elevate the film beyond the usual musical drug addiction biopics. Here, Elton’s addictions aren’t some sort of Walk The Line/Bird/The Rose/What’s Love Got To Do With It/Bohemian Rhapsody crutch to add emotional heft to the movie; the drug addiction is the movie. In fact, by establishing that the film establishes is all seen through Elton’s eyes, and therefore all in his head, the film allows itself to forgive its historical inaccuracies in a way, say, Bohemian Rhapsody did not. I mean, sure, nothing’s as egregious as rewriting history so Freddie gets AIDS sooner, or that the band never broke up, but there are still quite a few anachronisms. But even if you know that “I’m Still Standing” came out before John’s rehab stint, by placing the film in his mind, we can assume that he just can’t remember what songs came out when, and it justifies Egerton’s climactic performance of what is surely becoming his signature song (he also belted it at the climax of Sing). And when things seem too easy or too perfect, the film can justify itself to the audience by saying, “Well sure, but that’s just how Elton wants to remember it!” By embracing its own silliness, the film somehow, whether intentionally or not, has forgiven itself for many of its own shortcomings.
Now, at the end of the day, despite all the creative narrative twists Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall throw into the mix, this is still a biopic, meaning that a litany of clichés are still likely to shine through. So the question is: does this film manage its clichés in an artistically interesting way, or does it continuously condescend to its audience like, say, Bohemian Rhapsody. Well, it’s honestly something of a mixed bag. I do want to make it clear that there’s a lot to like in the way the film paints John’s career. Unlike other films where the main character magically sings in a parking lot and becomes an icon, Rocketman lays out a clear path for how Elton John became a superstar. While he was indeed gifted from birth (one scene depicts John perfectly recreating Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” from memory after hearing it once), the film also shows how the music that young Reggie loved to listen to, as well as his environment, helped shape him into the artist he became. As a child, he trained with a variety of classical music, listened to the blues with his father, went to rock ‘n roll bars with his mother, and enjoyed listening to Elvis Presley. While these influences show in a variety of cute ways, like a teenage Elton playing a classical piano piece with an Elvis pompadour haircut, it also helps audiences understand where John’s music comes from. When we hear John listening to Beethoven, or Duke Ellington, or Carl Perkins, or Elvis, we can begin to piece together where the melodies of “Candle In The Wind” or “Crocodile Rock” or “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” come from, and thus begin to understand the man. Furthermore, the film actually shows John struggling to write the music – gone are the days when Brian May miraculously claps out the beat to “We Will Rock You” first try in Bohemian Rhapsody, or Ice Cube and Dr. Dre immediately improvise “Straight Outta Compton” in the film of the same name. Here, we see the much more honest reality of an artist struggling and playing around with melodies, so that when we finally hear “Your Song” in its final form, the ultimate impact is all that more impressive. Outside of the music, I was pretty pleased with the knowledge that the film forgoes several tropes of the genre, even though it veers close on several occasions. For example, while the film does portray John’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, it chooses to portray these addictions forming over several years, with little hints here and there, as opposed to the old “Get outta here, Dewey! You don’t want no part of this stuff!” method of most biopics. The film also eschews John’s future husband David from the story – not because he isn’t important, but because the film chooses to explore the fairly revolutionary notion of John learning to love himself, instead of using his husband as a crutch to lean on. And when the film does try to introduce John’s love life, it is through a series of mild, but interesting, side journeys – sexual tension mounts between Elton and best friend/songwriter Bernie before we gently learn that Bernie is straight, and when we do witness some steamy action from John and manager Reid, it manages to walk that tricky line between “tasteful” and “hot.” There’s a lot to like in the film’s attempt at the musical biopic genre.
Unfortunately, for as much as there is to like, there’s an equal number of scenes that will make you scoff and consider just leaving to buy the soundtrack instead. I can pretty much summarize these moments as “Any Time Elton John’s Family Appears Onscreen.” Yes, once again audiences will find themselves facing a story about how a talented musician became talented because “Daddy didn’t love me.” Only this time, it’s “Both parents didn’t love me.” Sheila and Stanley Eileen are two of the most unlikeable, irritating film characters this decade, through a combination of poor writing, poor acting, and poor staging. Every biopic trope you can think of revolving around abusive parents can be seen in these two – when young Reggie asks his father for a hug, his father scoffs and states, “Hugs make you soft.” When Reggie demonstrates talent on the piano, his mother’s reasoning for buying him lessons is, “Might as well get him lessons, get him out from under me feet!” (Both of those are real lines from this movie). Every scene with these two borders on unwatchable, and even though the film tries to experiment with the form on occasion (Stanley mellows out with age, but only towards a new family, and still barely registers the biggest star on the planet as his son – ideas introduced but never explored by the film), it never evolves beyond what we’ve seen in countless films before. What’s irritating about the melodrama of these sequences is that the extravagant musical numbers are performed through a total eschewing of biopic stereotypes – making the childhood home scenes seem that much worse. Meanwhile, while Hall’s script is pretty strong on occasion, it does steer more than once directly into the realm of “Cheesy Artist Dialogue.” Time and time again, the film delivers such clunkers as “You gotta kill the person you were born to be to be the person you wanna be,” or “How can you expect someone to love you if you can’t love yourself?” And even if we are to believe that this film takes place in Elton’s flamboyant imagination, I still can’t get over the fact that he just happens to find a piano in the doctor’s office at the end of the film. Come on, movie. At the end of the day, a lot of these dumb moments still find ways to work on your emotions, but it unfortunately doesn’t excuse just how bad many of these moments are.
Now, I’ve danced around the topic for a few paragraphs now, so it’s time to address it head-on: is this movie technically impressive? And to that, the answer is unequivocally “Yes.” Dexter Fletcher has been a fairly mediocre director in the past, but even when Rocketman finds itself leaning towards the ordinary, Fletcher pushes himself to take risks and branch out visually as a way to make up for his blander moments – and I will always reward an ok diver who lands on his back attempting the Triple Lindy as opposed to the talented diver who balks for a pencil dive. The cinematography by George Richmond feels alive and kinetic from the dance sequences to the concerts to the drugged-out hazes – a scene where Elton scrambles down an alleyway to the tune of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is truly riveting. The editing is both retro and modern in its sensibilities – I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the sequence utilizing John’s “Amoreena” is cut fairly similarly to its usage in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. The costumes are, unsurprisingly, fantastical and brilliant – and hilariously all real, as the end credits demonstrate. My personal favorite is a white suit and porkpie hat with a black and gold bowtie that I’m pretty sure I own. And the choreography is stunning, both musically and generally – there’s a scene set in an 80s nightclub that is supposed to suggest the impression of an orgy that the filmmakers instead stage as a Bob Fosse sexually charged burlesque. But as with any great musical biopic, the true star is the music; and frankly, Fletcher nails each and every number. The film understands perfectly how to deliver each song for its diegetic purpose, whether its an overture set to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a drugged-out pyrrhic victory set to “Pinball Wizard,” the staging of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” like a bad karaoke number, or a triumphant (if obvious) use of “I’m Still Standing.” Perhaps the best example of filmmaking in the entire work is the “Rocket Man” sequence, which is a master class of music, choreography, editing, cinematography, and more as we watch a suicide attempt turn into a hospital stay turn into an LA performance and climax as John literally turns into a rocket ship and fly into outer space. Technically speaking, this is an impressive film.
As for the acting, Rocketman lives and dies with Taron Egerton. Not only does Egerton actually kind of look and sound like a young Elton, he manages to do something that most biopic stars fail to understand: he chooses to embody his artist, as opposed to imitating them. Egerton throws himself into the role, successfully carrying his musical numbers and properly preening around the stage like the flamboyant showman Elton John is. Egerton really seems to be having a blast in the role, and it shows in every scene, whether he’s hilariously melting down upon realizing he will be performing in front of The Beach Boys and Neil Young, angrily coming out in a phone booth to his mother, or heartbreakingly falling apart like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights (and not just because he sits in a car crying out, “I’m a f*cking idiot!”). Now, I will note that there are a few moments where it feels like Taron stops being Elton and just starts acting and singing like himself, but even though these moments are a nuisance that take you out of the film, they are not enough to outweigh the truly remarkable moments that come before. There are a few other performances I want to shout out, thanks to their contributions to the film. Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor are both every bit as impressive as Egerton as the younger versions of the man who would become Elton John. Jamie Bell gives his best performance in two decades as Bernie Taupin, the man who wrote John’s most impressive lyrics. Richard Madden plays John Reid, a character mostly excused in Bohemian Rhapsody (despite being played by f*cking Littlefinger), and he does so with an impressive mix of humor, menace, sleaziness, and sexuality. Tate Donovan is hilarious in two small scenes he has as Doug Weston, the owner of The Troubadour nightclub. Stephen Graham is also quite funny as John’s verbally abusive first manager Dick James. And in terms of the women in John’s life, Gemma Jones is sweet as John’s supportive grandmother, Rachel Muldoon sounds terrific in her one scene as Kiki Dee, and Celinde Schoenmaker makes the most out of a minor role as Renate Blauel, Elton’s misguided attempt at a first marriage. Of course, I do have to circle back to the performances by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh. I understand that the material for Elton John’s parents was not all there, and fairly thin to work with…but my God are they bad in this film. They feel like bad actors in a bad high school play, grating on you every time they show up onscreen and tempting you to walk out at every moment. At least Mackintosh has a decent scene later in the film’s runtime – Howard is the worst she’s been since Jurassic World, perhaps even Lady In The Water (one could ask if she’s ever been good in a role). Howard’s bad acting is made even funnier by the knowledge that she refuses to age, so that while every other character gets older as we travel from the 1940s to the 1990s, Howard looks the same in every scene, providing a textbook definition of Hollywood vanity. Again, these two are not enough to ruin the goodwill of the film, but boy do they try.
Rocketman is an entertaining romp that both adheres to tradition and tries to elevate the genre to new levels. As with all first attempts to break the mold, there’s going to be stumbles and growing pains, but that doesn’t make the achievement any less special. Fletcher has crafted a kinetic and entertaining musical, and he’s perfectly casted it with Taron Egerton. It’s a heartwarming tribute to its musical inspiration, and honestly, as mad as I am at its flaws, I can’t stop thinking of the music, the sequences that worked, and the uplifting story. It says a lot that I made it all the way through this review and never once had to fall back on references to “Tiny Dancer,” one of my all-time favorite songs – Rocketman is interesting and enjoyable enough on its own that it didn’t need any extra support. It was close, but I’m pleased to confirm that I can give Rocketman my nod of approval. It didn’t go breaking your heart (I’m so sorry).